Thursday, 22 April 2010

'Can tha' keep a Secret?' - An old Yorkshire tale of class war, conspiracy, murder …and a nice day out! by Chris Draper

(Due to an editing error in the latest issue of Northern Voices, we've accidentally 'cropped' an article by valued contributor Chris Draper. We hope we can make up for this mistake - to both Chris and our readers - by reproducing the article in full on the blog. The introduction follows and the rest of the article can be read after the 'read more' link below)

In February 1812 at the Shears Inn, Hightown, West Yorkshire a secret meeting of working men took place in an upstairs room. The talk was of desperate measures, how could croppers defend themselves, their families and their community from the destitution wrought by the cloth masters? The men determined to stop the new shearing machines being imported into the Spen Valley. They planned an all out campaign of direct action. A campaign that would climax with an armed assault on Rawfolds Mill and a notorious attempt by the local vicar to force an injured Luddite to reveal the names of his fellow conspirators…

Ned Ludd’s Infantry

In the early eighteenth century the West Riding of Yorkshire was a main centre of woollen cloth manufacture and pre-eminent amongst the crafts involved in the final processing of the material were cloth shearers, or croppers. Their job was to shave the woven material using enormous four-foot long shears, weighing 40lbs, to impart a smooth, comfortable finish to the cloth. Croppers were highly skilled, independent-minded craftsmen working in small workshops. The invention of a mechanical shearing frame that produced similar results faster, cheaper and in factories owned and run by the masters made the croppers’ skills redundant. Cloth workers petitioned Parliament to enforce Elizabethan legislation regulating the introduction of new technologies but to good effect. Parliament had no interest in maintaining the old guild system but on the contrary was determined to outlaw all combinations of working men that might restrict their profitable exploitation by the masters. Croppers consequently organised in secret to destroy the new shearing machines. Masters acquiring shearing frames received threatening letters signed by a mysterious Ned Ludd and with the oaths sworn and militant plans agreed at their February meeting the Spen Valley croppers joined the North’s rapidly expanding ranks of Luddites. Within days a column of Spen Valley Luddites successfully intercepted and smashed a consignment of frames en-route to Rawfolds Mill but their celebrations were short lived. Reverend Roberson, a rabid anti-Luddite friend of the mill owner, William Cartwright, exhorted him to stand his ground and press ahead with his planned installation of shearing machines.

A Present from Uncle Enoch

At midnight on Saturday 11th April 1812 around 150 Luddites assembled at the Dumb Steeple, Cooper Bridge. All wore masks or had blackened faces, most carried muskets or sticks and many shouldered heavy hammers nicknamed “Enochs”. This was an ironic reference to blacksmith Enoch Taylor of Marsden who made not only their hammers but also the hated shearing frames. The Luddites carried hammers to smash the machines for, “Enoch hath mek ‘em and Enoch shall brek ‘em!”

Marching in a disciplined column the men crossed Hartshead Moor to launch a full-scale assault on Rawfolds Mill but Cartwright had spent weeks transforming the building into a fortress. Accompanied by armed servants and soldiers Cartwright had been sleeping at the mill in anticipation of an imminent attack. The heavy mill door was studded with iron, there were spiked rollers on the stairs and tubs of acid were positioned to be tipped over invaders. If any Luddites did manage to enter the mill the flagstones on the top floor could be raised to create a parapet for defenders to fire over.

Cartwright’s Killing Fields

Reaching the mill at about half past midnight the militants swiftly overpowered two sentries guarding the entrance but despite determined attempts the Luddites couldn’t breach Cartwright’s well organised defences. For twenty minutes a pitched battle ensued with over 140 shots fired from within the building. Eventually the Luddites were forced to abandon the attack leaving behind a trail of gore and two seriously injured men.

Despite the successful defence of his mill Cartwright was fuming because one of his soldiers had refused to fire upon the Luddites, “because I might hit some of my brothers”. Cartwright ensured the trooper was subsequently court-martialled and sentenced to receive 300 lashes.

Death at the Star

On Cartwright’s instructions the wounded Luddites were carried to The Star Inn, Roberttown where their injuries were assessed. Samuel Hartley, “a fine-looking, young, unmarried cropper …had received a shot in his left breast that had lodged beneath the skin at his left shoulder, from whence it was extracted with a portion of bone". John Booth, a youth of about 19 years, son of a clergyman in Craven…had a wound in his leg, which was shattered almost to atoms. It was found necessary that he should submit to have the leg amputated but owing to the extreme loss of blood before the surgeons arrived spasms came on during the operation and he died about 6 o’clock on Sunday morning.” Samuel Hartley “languished ‘til about 3 o’clock on Monday morning when he expired”.

The Funerals Begin…

On Wednesday 15th April Samuel Hartley was buried at Halifax with hundreds of angry mourners in attendance. Throughout the town, “Vengeance for the Blood of the Innocent was chalked on walls and doors” causing the authorities high anxiety. To pre-empt the possibility of John Booth’s funeral inciting mourners to wreak revenge the authorities secretly arranged to have him interred under cover of darkness at six am the following morning. This subterfuge further incensed local people who realised they must reassess their methods. The Spen men realised that although shearing machines might now be impregnable within newly fortified mills the owners themselves were not invulnerable. The authorities had drawn the first blood but not the last.

Two days after John Booth’s burial William Cartwright was ambushed in Bradley wood and shot at. Cartwright escaped physical injury but thereafter became a virtual recluse. Ten days later another local mill owner, William Horsfall was shot dead.

'Can tha' keep a secret?'

The authorities were terrified. On 11th May 1812 the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated in the House of Commons, the common people were jubilant and the government feared a general uprising. With Britain at war with France more troops (12,000) were deployed in the north of England against the Luddites than served in the Peninsula with Wellington against Napoleon! Despite huge rewards being offered and armies of spies engaged the authorities were unable to uncover the identities of the other attackers of Rawfolds Mill.

As Hartley and Booth lay mortally wounded at the Star Inn, the authorities summoned the Reverend Hammond Roberson from his home at Healds Hall to make a last ditch attempt to extract the names of accomplices from the dying men. After, it was claimed, softening up Booth by refusing him water and applying aqua fortis to his wounds, Roberson, “behaved more like an inquisitor than a clergyman.” Wracked with pain, hardly able to breath yet apparently determined not to be overheard, John Booth, gestured to Roberson that he had something to say…

'Can tha' keep a secret?'

Nodding encouragingly Roberson reassured Booth that he could and lowering his head to the bedside his smile dissolved as Booth confided;

'So can I!'

Spending a Day With the Spen Valley Luddites:

You can enjoy a fictionalised account of these historic events in Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley and you can also have an interesting day out visiting several of the surviving sites. Spen Valley is roughly equidistant from Leeds, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Halifax and Bradford and can be easily reached by public transport from any of those places. A walking tour of the following Luddite sites can be easily constructed and the two old inns offer ideal places to honour the memory of our activist predecessors and contemplate the devastating effects of new technologies.

· The Shears Inn; (01924-402789) Halifax Road (A649), Hightown, Liversedge, WF15 6NR

· Dumb Steeple; historic monument bearing explanatory plaque at Mirfield’s Cooper Bridge roundabout on the Leeds Road (A62)/Wakefield Road(A644)

· Rawfolds Mill; now demolished an industrial estate occupies the site off the Bradford Road (A638) interestingly entitled “Rawfolds Mill, Cartwright Street”!

· Healds Hall; (01924-409112) originally home of Reverend Roberson, now The Healds Hall Hotel & Restaurant, Liversedge, Leeds Road, WF15 6JA (A62) near junction with Bradford Road(A638)

· Christ Church; Roberson was a very rich clergyman who in 1812 built this church with his own money! He is buried near the entrance to the churchyard so if you’d like to spit on his grave…

· The Star Inn; (01924-413910) 223 Roberttown Lane, off Leeds Road, WF15 7LQ (A62) and just around the corner is John Booth Close!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The photographs used to accompany this article were taken by Mr. Ken Bolton, of Millbrook, Stalybridge, who gave his permission for the photos to be used.